The circumstances of Leela Aheer’s UCP leadership bid are a tad ironic and a bit of a “full circle” situation.
The former UCP cabinet minister and MLA for Chestermere-Strathmore is vying for the province’s top job, competing against the man who first gave her an opportunity as an elected official, Brian Jean, and the woman who sparked the situation that opened that door, Danielle Smith.
“Keep in mind, I have the most interesting history here. Similar to Todd (Loewen) and Brian (Jean) — all of us came into this because of the floor-crossing,” Aheer said.
Eight Wildrose MLAs, following then-leader Smith, defected to Jim Prentice’s governing Progressive Conservative Party in late 2014. Among them was MLA Bruce McCallister; Aheer was a board member of his constituency association at the time.
With a vacant seat and a looming election, Aheer said the Wildrose Party and later its new leader, Jean, tapped her as they were “looking for a progressive” to bolster their ranks after the floor-crossing and issues that had cropped up in its caucus, such as the “lake of fire” scandal.
“I was dragged in,” Aheer said. “I don’t know if you would have ever seen someone like me come into the forefront had it not been for the floor-crossing and had Wildrose not pursued me.”
Aheer won her first bid for elected office, nudging out incumbent McCallister. She saw herself as an underdog then, and, according to UCP leadership polling numbers, she’s in the same boat now, sitting well behind perceived front-runners Smith and Jean.
“People are always asking me about the polls, and how I could possibly think that I’m even going to get more than one per cent (of the vote),” she said. “In my first race, former premier Prentice . . . came out to our riding three times to promote Bruce McAllister. We out-doorknocked Bruce; we outworked him.”
Aheer thinks she’s done the same this time around, travelling provincewide over the past several months. Describing herself as an “eternal optimist,” she says she doesn’t know what Thursday’s vote holds — but she likes her chances.
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“I think that there is optimism. I think things will shake out differently than any of us expect. I think that polling only reflects a small part of the population,” said Aheer. “I’m just ready and raring to go.”
Aheer’s platform focuses on multiple issues she’s heard about from Albertans on the campaign trail: health, education, inflation, seniors care and AISH benefits, topics she said Albertans are concerned about and engaged with. In terms of policy commitments, Aheer said she would halt a provincial police force, return funding to legal aid, reindex AISH and implement a fiscal resistance policy to combat rising costs of living.
“No matter what ends up happening, the tone has to change,” said Aheer. “Conservatives have to come together. We have to do so much better.
“That, to me, is already a win. For me, the premiership is just a teeny tiny part of it.”